Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Preserving digital information = Preserving your, and your library or archives', viability

Digital preservation is a new enough field that there is no one best way to do it. I just read the recently released guide on distributed digital preservation, a model that utilizes a different approach than a enterprise level, standalone preservation systems like Rosetta. The assumptions underlying the distributed digital preservation systems model mean compromises that may or may not be acceptable to an organization. For instance, in the LOCKSS environment members typically must agree to preserve the same content, must agree to the same rules of the preservation environment, utilize the same basic hardware configurations and need to find at least seven institutions that agree to all these restrictions and more. This report is useful in that it can help you analyze which model would work best for your organization.

However, the better reason to read this document is to consume their observations about digital preservation in general, and specifically the reasons why we must engage in this field.

The observation I found particularly important in these days of reduced budgets and a perception that libraries are no longer as relevant as they once were, was their note of concern on page 2 where they stated:
"many cultural memory organizations are today seeking third parties to take on the responsibility for acquiring and managing their digital collections through contractual transfer and outsourcing of operational arrangements."
They also note this is happening
"at the time that these digital collections are becoming their most important asset."
I couldn't agree more on this critical point. Later in the chapter they pick up on the theme again (page 7) when they note
"to outsource one of our two key missions in the digital medium is to begin acting as brokers rather than curators—a dangerous step in any time, but particularly so in one so fraught with economic tensions."
They also note,
“One of the greatest risks we run in not preserving our own digital assets for ourselves is that we simultaneously cease to preserve our own viability as institutions."
That is a powerful statement deserving reflection and contemplation by any library with a significant stake in digital content or a desire to accurately capture information about the history of our society. On page 18/19, the report poses this question:
“How will we preserve [the following] essential pieces of our heritage?
  • Web sites as they existed in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, or Hurricane Katrina?
  • Web sites developed during the national elections?
  • Executive correspondence generated via e- mail?
  • Web sites dedicated to political, social and economic analyses?
  • Data generated via geographical information systems, rather than physical maps?
  • Digitally recorded music or video recordings?
  • Web sites that feature personal information such as videos or photographs?
  • Social networking sites?”
Of course, in the academic environment, we would add e-research data sets, institutional repository content, pre-pub versions of articles and research and much, much more.

Most of us will agree we must address these issues. We need to realize they are no less urgent than dealing with new economic realities. What is important to realize is that dealing with digital preservation, is in part, an answer to dealing with those economic realities. By establishing these services in our organizations, we establish new relevance and with that will come new funding and new funding models.

You can start by doing the following:
  1. Have your staff learn about the Open Archival Information system (OAIS). There are online tutorials and/or workshops that cover this model.
  2. Conduct a Risk Analysis to understand your organizations situation with regard to digital content. The Digital Repository Audit Method Based on Risk Assessment (DRAMBORA) is one method.
  3. The time to start talking about the plan for digital preservation is at the start of every new digital initiative. The cost of digital preservation must be built into the funding request to create that very data. Work with department heads, staff and faculty to build this awareness. At the same time, you must work with your Provosts to help educate them on the costs of providing these services and determine who will help in bearing those costs so they can be properly allocated.
  4. Begin learning about the products/services that exist to help you perform digital preservation. Of course, we’d be delighted to show you Rosetta as an example of a full function, enterprise level, OAIS-compliant digital preservation system.
  5. Concurrent with the above, know that you have to put in place the foundations for digital preservation across your organization. “Too often an organization undertakes responsibility for digital stewardship without first ensuring that the necessary policies and controls are in place or that the institution itself views digital preservation as a core mandate”(1)
Digital preservation is about more than just preserving digital content—it’s about preserving the importance and relevance of libraries and archives in our societies.